IMRAN KHAN: from playboy to Prime Minister
A cricket hero, an international playboy, a political dynamo – William Langley tracks the trajectory of Imran Khan and ponders what his prime ministership will mean for the women of Pakistan.
In the week that Imran Khan became Pakistan’s Prime Minister-Elect, a young woman, who lived not far from his villa in the dry hills above Islamabad, was abducted, tortured with electric cables and beaten to death, allegedly by her in-laws, who disapproved of her lifestyle. Such murders and extreme punishments of women are so routine in Pakistan as to barely figure in the daily news rounds, and as Imran appeared before an ecstatic crowd of supporters to promise “a new country we can all be proud of”, no one thought the issue worth raising.
It has been a long road for the former cricket star, playboy and high society heart-throb, but the list of challenges that now face him is even longer. Prominent among them is delivering on his pledge to improve the lives of women in a country where all power remains tethered to ancient codes of patriarchy.
At 65, Imran has lost little of the outrageous good looks that earned him, in his party animal days, the accolade of “the world’s most beautiful man”. The dark mane of hair remains lush and wild, the eyes moist and soulful, the features rich with the rugged handsomeness that his
ex-girlfriend, model Marie Helvin, described as “a work of genius”. But the only party currently on his mind is called Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), a grass-roots organisation which he founded 22 years ago with the ambitious aim of ending the decades-old stitch-up that keeps the country and its 200 million people in the hands of a few family clans and a watchful military.
Sceptics have long scoffed at Imran’s admittedly vague promises to end the inequality and corruption that run deep in this volatile, nuclear-armed Muslim country, but in July’s general election his party achieved an extraordinary breakthrough, winning the largest number of seats in the National Assembly.
When he was sworn in on August 18, after a month of bickering about the validity of the results, there were tears in his eyes. Addressing a group of predominantly young and female supporters, he declared: “I did not climb here on any dictator’s shoulders, I do not come from any chosen family. All I have is you and your trust, and I will not betray you.”
Behind the excitement hovers the awkward question of which Imran now takes charge. Will it be the inspirational
sporting hero who led his country to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup? Or the smooth-mannered charmer who mesmerised London society in the 1980s? Or the wily, wheeler-dealer who, on his route to the top, has cosied up to everyone from Islamic fundamentalists to Wall Street financiers?
“When you look at Imran,” says M. Bilal Lakhani, publisher of one of Pakistan’s leading news magazines, “you see a mirror image of all this country’s beauty and failings. He’s the best and worst of us. He’s vain and opportunistic, and when you look at the scale of the problems facing us, he may well be kidding himself, but I believe his intentions are good and he can be the cultural spark that begins the process of change.”
Others are less convinced. In an incendiary book published shortly before the election, Imran’s second wife, Reham, 45, a former BBC journalist, portrayed him as a hypocrite and phoney whose squeakykyclean image is a sham. “He thinks he e is God,” says Reham, “and he’s completely addicted to his own celebrity,” adding helpfully, “but it’s not my intention to damage him.”
Imran was born into Pakistan’s gilded elite, the son of a successful engineer and a socially well-connected mother. He was educated at private schools in both Lahore and England before winning a place at Oxford University, where he emerged as a fearsome fast bowler and middle-order batsman, later turning professional and captaining his national team through one of its greatest eras – all this while moonlighting as a prize adornment of the international glossy set, and a prodigious seducer of beautiful women.
These days, Imran has become adept at using his own fortunate life as an illustration of what he believes to be wrong with Pakistan.
“Our biggest problem,” he once told me as an overhead fan stirred the sweaty air in his Lahore office, “is that the privileged class, of which I’m obviously a part, controls pretty much everything. We live different lives li t to th the vast t majority j it of f th the people, we have our own schools where we are educated in English, our own doctors and hospitals who look after us. We live modern, Westernised lives in the middle of what is basically a feudal society, and we are effectively above the law because we have the money and the contacts to get away with anything.”
His early forays into politics proved popular but costly. As the nation’s favourite son he attracted huge crowds, heavy media coverage and international attention, but his opponents and their allies in the military took a less favourable view of the glamorous interloper, and instead of getting a share of power, he found himself under house arrest.
It was costly in other ways, too. Imran blames the collapse of his marriage to the British heiress Jemima Goldsmith on the dirty tricks of his political enemies. Jemima was just 21, th the d daughter ht of f billi billionaire i businessman Sir James Goldsmith and his exuberant wife Lady Annabel. Celebrated in the London gossip columns as the ultimate “It Girl” and a darling of the fashion glossies, Jemima had met Imran in a Mayfair nightclub, and their 1995 wedding was packed with the global glitterati.
“It never occurred to me that we’d have problems,” Imran told me later. “That’s not the way I try to look at life. I don’t go into things fearing that they might go wrong. I was happy, and in love, and I didn’t think the question of who I married would matter in the way that it did.”
No one could accuse Jemima of failing to take the role of politician’s wife seriously. She converted to Islam, learned to speak Urdu and swapped her designer wardrobe for the demure shalwar kameez and headscarf worn by almost all Pakistani women. She went out on the stump, threw herself
into charity work and adopted the Muslim name “Haiqa”. It wasn’t long, though, before the attacks began.
They came first as allusions to Jemima’s Jewish background. Although she had been raised a Catholic, her father was Jewish, and in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan this was enough to plant the idea that she had “enchanted” Imran as part of a plot to weaken the country’s religious character. To attack Imran personally was a risky strategy, given the cricketer’s heroic status, but it soon became clear that no such constraints applied to his young wife.
Imran claims that the government itself was the source of several damaging stories about her, with newspapers running coded accounts of Jemima’s supposedly decadent life as a Western good-time girl.
“It was very difficult for her,” Imran recalled. “They went for her right from the start and it meant that I wasn’t able to make her a partner in politics. Jemima’s really a shy and private person and the attacks hurt her. The more I exposed her, the more they would have gone for her, and I felt I ought to spare her that. What it meant, though, was that we started spending more time apart.”
After nine years, Jemima returned to London with their two young sons, Sulaiman and Kasim. A divorce followed, but they remain on good terms. After Imran’s election, Jemima, who has never remarried, tweeted: “After humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices, my sons’ father is Pakistan’s next PM. It’s an incredible lesson in tenacity, belief and refusal to accept defeat. Congratulations.”
For his part, Imran wed Reham in 2015, a decision he has since called “the biggest mistake of my life”, and after splitting within a year, he took up with Bushra Maneka, a 40-yearold Punjabi faith healer, who Imran initially introduced as his “spiritual advisor” before revealing that they had married. Bushra, who wears a full face veil and rarely appears in public, presents a perfect image of conservative religious womanhood,
and much intrigue swirls around her place at Imran’s side.
For perhaps the most fiercely debated aspect of Imran’s political rise is his commitment to women’s rights, and how – or if – he will seek to tackle the nation’s glaring gender gap. A report last year from the
World Economic Forum rated
Pakistan the second worst country on earth (behind only Yemen) in terms of women’s access to education, employment and political engagement.
Out on the stump, women – particularly younger, urban women – have flocked to support him, often making up the majority of the crowds at his rallies. His opponents have sniffily implied that this has more to do with his glamour quotient than his manifesto, but the post-election analysis confirms that record numbers of women turned out to vote – many for the first time – and the majority backed Imran.
“We may have the right to vote,” says Najma Ali, head of a nationwide campaign for women’s participation in elections, “but for all sorts of reasons – cultural, political, geographic – it can be very difficult for women to actually cast one, and the further you go out of the towns, the harder it gets.” What she means is that, in many parts of the country, tradition dictates that women either don’t vote at all or vote the way their husbands tell them to. “But this year was a real breakthrough,” says Najma. “In some areas more women actually voted than men.”
The problem for Imran was winning the female vote without alarming the powerful conservative bloc, which is deeply suspicious of such notions as gender equality. In public he has spoken of the need to bring women into the mainstream and end the barbarous practices that each year result in thousands of mostly poor, rural women murdered, beaten, gang raped or driven out of their villages and into destitution, usually for “immoral” behaviour. So-called “honour killings” alone are estimated to cost the lives of 20 women a week, the toll facilitated by an archaic law that allows families to pardon the killer.
Yet his detractors are sceptical. In the past, Imran has described feminism as “unnatural”, backed the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which are deployed with particular severity against women, and denounced Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Prize-winning campaigner for girls’ education, as “a CIA agent”. In the July election, his party managed to field only six women candidates, barely meeting the five per cent legal threshold.
“If you are an optimist, you have to hope that he is trying to outsmart the religious conservatives,” says author and women’s rights campaigner Rafia Zakaria, “but that’s taking a lot at face value, and the real test will be what he actually does. There’s no doubt that a lot of women have put their trust in him, and if he lets us down, I fear that we are heading back to a dark and repressive place.”
At this critical time in his life,
Imran isn’t keen on being reminded of his raffish past. Some years ago, he finally sold his old London bachelor flat, using the money to buy 16 hectares of wild hillside outside Islamabad, where he now lives surrounded by cypress and rosewood trees, to the sound of eagles calling.
“What’s always mattered to me is passion,” he says. “Cricket was a passion. Politics is a passion. When I was young, I had a great social life, and it was a wonderful time for me, but I don’t miss it. I’m happier now, I don’t revel in nostalgia. For me, the past is only to learn from.”
Clockwise from above: Imran had sporting prowess and good looks; the 1995 wedding to Jemima; the Khans attend a London charity event.
Top: Imran speaks to supporters of his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party at Lahore in 2013. Above: Anti-government protesters in 2014. That year, Imran demanded the Pakistani PM resign. Last July, his party achieved an extraordinary victory.